The problem with pet projects



Yuvi Gill, PMP, thought he had a straightforward assignment on a recent project:

He needed to find synergies between the warranty processes of various product lines. But the scope of the project expanded like a hot-air balloon thanks to an executive sponsor with a personal interest in the endeavor. Pretty soon, the scope included the vendor management groups for each product line. Eventually, several more areas and groups were added, extending far beyond the original vision.

In other words, it had become a dreaded pet project.

“Consistent scope creep is a sign that the executive sponsor is getting away from the business needs of the project and is focusing on his or her own needs,” says Mr. Gill, senior manager of operational excellence at Genentech, San Francisco, California, USA.

Executive sponsorship can make or break a project. PMI's 2012 Pulse of the Profession report found that organizations with active project or program sponsors on at least 80 percent of their projects have a success rate 11 percentage points higher than the overall survey average. The report also identified an engaged sponsor as the top indicator of a project meeting its original goals and business intent.

However, there's such a thing as too much involvement, when executives play favorites and grow overly attached to a certain project.

Roman Baranovsky, PhD, PMP, chief project officer at fraud management consultant Experian Decision Analytics, Moscow, Russia, identifies several characteristics of pet projects:

  • ▪ Undertaken to satisfy a stakeholder's personal interests
  • ▪ Launched for a solid strategic reason but not terminated when no longer valid
  • ▪ Initiated regardless of very high risks or potentially negative returns
  • ▪ Receives an unjustifiably large amount of effort and attention from the sponsor

When executives make projects too personal, they risk losing sight of overall strategic needs.

“The biggest risk—particularly as organizations try to go more and more lean—is that pet projects do not bring much value to the organization,” Mr. Gill says. “Most don't even align with the objectives of the company. That's really a drain on resources.”

To avoid falling into the pet project trap, look for these warning signs.

Who Needs Rules?

“Pet-project initiators shortcut standard procedures—such as identifying a business case, generating a charter and formally allocating resources—and data is missing,” says Steffen Thieringer, PMP, program manager at manufacturing firm NMB Technologies Corporation, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. “A proper cost-benefit analysis also may be nowhere to be found.”

Before executives decide to opt out of procedures, Dr. Baranovsky suggests they ask: Why was the procedure established? What are the consequences for not following it? Am I ready to face those consequences?

“If you still believe the rule can be bypassed, ask your project manager to evaluate the risks involved with your decision and treat them as he or she would treat any other risk on the project,” he says.


Stuck With a Pet Project?

Project managers are often in a good spot to identify executive pet projects. Of course, they can't simply call out an executive who has lost sight of the big picture. Three project professionals offer their advice for handling this delicate situation:

Raed Odetallah, Philips, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, recommends forging a strong relationship beforehand. “It's very important that the project manager builds a good level of trust with the executive before trying to persuade him or her.”

Steffen Thieringer, PMP, NMB Technologies Corporation, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, maintains that the project manager's power lies in his or her ability to use project data to support the argument. “Status reports—which are hopefully published, reviewed and signed off by a group of executives—should contain information the project manager can use to suggest changes to the project—or even suggest its closure.”

Yuvi Gill, PMP, Genentech, San Francisco, California, USA, suggests junior-level project managers go in armed with strong data and present it with a director-level colleague. “And don't just give them one option; give them two or three.”

So Everyone Agrees, Right?

Sponsors should welcome healthy dissent—and project managers should beware if that dissent suddenly evaporates.

“Once an executive has made up his or her mind about a project, people who object will either stop voicing their opinion or stop attending meetings altogether,” Mr. Gill says.

To prevent this situation, he recommends implementing a vetting process that includes multiple high-level stakeholders. “Having a structure in place limits the amount of pet projects that get through,” he says.

This Shouldn't Take Too Much Time.

Pet projects have a nasty way of soaking up resources, not to mention project funds. “The high costs result from using resources in no-value work and not being able to use those same resources in valuable work on real projects,” explains Raed Odetallah, a senior-level project manager at healthcare and lighting tech company Philips, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Spreading the team too thin can also take its toll on deliverables. “People usually work on pet projects on the side, in addition to their other tasks, which impacts the overall work quality,” Mr. Thieringer says.

Can I Just Get a Little More Detail?

Executives can't afford to get caught up in project minutiae. They shouldn't be constantly following up directly with team members about small tasks or getting all the finer points of scheduling plans. “If the executive requests all types of details in the project dashboard and progress reports, he or she might be getting too close to the project,” Mr. Odetallah says.

To avoid becoming too attached to a pet project, executives should stick to the big picture, monitoring critical high-impact risks and issues.

There is one gray area: when an underperforming project manager requires increased executive involvement. In those cases, Dr. Baranovsky suggests the executive request a project review by the project management office or an outside consultant to ensure that the problem is with the project manager, and not the nature of the project itself.

“If the review finds the project manager to be incompetent, seek a replacement. Otherwise, relax,” he says. “All you need to do is review the communication plan with your project manager and agree that, in addition to regular project reports, you will get early warnings of all potentially serious problems.”

Failing to eliminate pet projects can have severe consequences beyond wasted resources and misaligned strategy. “The practice of launching pet projects can easily cascade, and the number of people looking after only their personal interests will grow,” Mr. Odetallah says. “If this practice becomes widespread, trust between all levels becomes hard—or even impossible—to build. And over time, the organization might lose its edge over its competitors.”

That's a pet no executive can afford to keep. PM




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